Peace Science Digest

Peacebuilding, Agency, and Zones of Peace

Photo credit: Folhapress / Joel Silva

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Hancock, L. (2017). Agency & peacebuilding: the promise of local zones of peace. Peacebuilding, 5(3), 255-269.

Talking Points

  • Liberal peacebuilding can sideline the agency of local actors, which accounts for widespread “hybridization” of, resistance to, or even failure of these efforts.
  • Zones of peace provide a potentially fruitful way of balancing competing requirements both for local agency and for the effective implementation of (international) peacebuilding priorities.
  • Zones of peace embody local agency, both through community members’ initial assertions of new “rules and processes” that carve out a space of nonviolence amid a broader context of violence and through their participatory decision-making processes.
  • Zones of peace have by and large retained a significant measure of agency in their interactions with external actors, whether in the context of capacity-building or funding.


At first glance, building peace after war seems like an undeniably benign enterprise. How could one argue with reconstructing and restoring institutions, infrastructure, and relationships torn apart by violence? One dominant mode of peacebuilding—so-called “liberal peacebuilding”—has met criticism, however, for simply exporting pre-packaged institutional reforms that privilege particular (western) models of liberal governance and capitalist economy, while also reinstating colonial power relationships between the “developed” and “developing” worlds and favoring top-down western technical “expertise” over local knowledge. Additionally, some scholars have noted the tendency of local actors to “bend” liberal peacebuilding programs for their own purposes, what Mac Ginty calls “hybrid peacebuilding,” which can have either harmful or beneficial effects, depending on whether local actors are diverting international resources for personal gain or exclusionary purposes, or are making programs genuinely more responsive to community needs. The author notes that this local altering of internationally imposed peacebuilding projects can be read in two ways: either as the unwillingness of local actors to “take ownership of” peacebuilding projects or as the resistance of local actors in situations where “lip service” is paid to the ideal of local ownership but power really rests with the international community. In either case, the question of local ownership is central to discussions about peacebuilding and why its projects often do not turn out as intended.

The author suggests, however, that these discussions miss something when agency is not taken into consideration, highlighting the way in which agency—unlike simply local ownership—entails some measure of influence over the context, one’s actions, and resulting outcomes. In addition, he contends that agency is best understood as a human need, one related to the need for “identity, dignity, role-defense, self-determination or self-actualization,” which, if denied, individuals will attempt to have met in some fashion. In the author’s view, liberal peacebuilding prioritizes the physical/physiological needs of local communities over these psychosocial needs, including agency, and this inattention to agency is what accounts for widespread “hybridization” of, resistance to, or even failure of liberal peacebuilding efforts.

This resistance to and/or hybridization of international peacebuilding—especially if it helps meet a need for local agency—might not be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that international organizations/funders have a vying need for the responsible management of their funds. These dueling imperatives provide the motivation for the author’s inquiry: how to design peacebuilding programs that meet the need both for local agency and for the effective implementation of the international community’s peacebuilding goals? The author argues that zones of peace (ZoPs) provide a peacebuilding model particularly well suited to negotiating these twin demands, and he draws on several cases of ZoPs—in El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Colombia, and the Philippines—to flesh out his claims.

Although the primary purpose of ZoPs is typically understood to be protecting civilians from violence in the midst of civil war, some ZoPs have taken on a broader peacebuilding role. In either case, ZoPs tend to be instated through “assertions of agency,” whereby community members “create rules and processes” that carve out a space of nonviolence and peacebuilding set apart from the broader context of violence. Most ZoPs exhibit a high level of unity and buy-in due to their participatory decision-making processes, which endow community members with a strong sense of agency. To address and take control of community problems well beyond the threat of direct violence, ZoPs also often initiate a range of peacebuilding activities, including “educational activities, job training, economic initiatives, public relations campaigns and the creation of parallel governance structures.” Nonetheless, even locally directed ZoPs need to negotiate their exercise of agency in the context of various relationships with external actors. The cases examined show that, by and large, the interaction between ZoPs and external actors has been directed by the ZoPs in question, who tend to call on external organizations for information, materials, or training when needed but, in the process, retain control over their peacebuilding activities. When it comes to the pressures of external funding, many ZoPs have found ways to avoid being dictated to by national authorities or international organizations by either limiting their need for funds or diversifying their sources of funding—or by cultivating other forms of support like unarmed accompaniment (by smaller international NGOs) for threatened activists or sister-city relationships.

The author closes by outlining how even those conceptualizations of peacebuilding that are critical of liberal peacebuilding and sympathetic to the concerns of local actors entail their own ideas about what constitutes good or effective peacebuilding, recreating the tension between international expectations/criteria and local agency/decision-making. The author maintains that ZoPs provide a potentially fruitful way of balancing these competing requirements, ensuring that this basic human need for agency is met but also that peacebuilding activities are not subverted to such an extent that they reinstate the harmful dynamics that brought about violent conflict in the first place. 

Agency: “the power of actors to operate independently of the determining constraints of social structure.” The author uses agency’s sociological definition from Jary, D. & Jary, J. (1991). The HarperCollins Dictionary of Sociology. New York: HarperPerennial.

Zones of Peace: “physical zones [in the context of armed conflict] whose inhabitants are generally held to be inviolate against attack.” 

Contemporary Relevance

The author’s reminder about the importance of agency as a human need is instructive on a few different levels. First, as intended, it helps “us” critically evaluate peacebuilding programs to ensure that they are not just reinstating unequal global relationships that locate decision-making and power with western “experts” to the detriment of actors in affected communities. Second, it is relevant to—and helps us understand—a very different context: that of countries that have been subject to western military intervention and occupation. The need for agency explains—in terms any of us can understand—why people don’t simply acquiesce to the presence of U.S. (or other foreign) soldiers on their territory. What bolsters support for the Taliban? What energized the various militias that sprang up shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq? How can even a group like ISIS gain willing members? Although the answers to these questions are certainly multi-faceted, the disenfranchisement experienced under foreign military occupation—and the subsequent search for agency through participation in insurgent groups—is a major component. Finally, more broadly, it brings up questions about who the assumed audience is for articles like this one and what that says about this concern for agency. In the end, it seems as if the author is suggesting that international peacebuilders should encourage the creation of zones of peace to increase local agency in peacebuilding processes—but that framing itself reveals the entrenched structure of the international peacebuilding apparatus, for better or worse: outside actors coming in to suggest or support activities that they think will build peace, thereby necessarily undermining the agency of local actors. Prime agency, judgment, and decision-making still remain, on some fundamental level, with outsiders. This reality may be inescapable to some extent. Additionally, we wouldn’t want to stifle communication or support across borders, and no society is or can be completely isolated anyway—in fact, the causes of these very wars to which peacebuilding is a response are as global as they are local, even in the case of civil wars. But in our post-colonial world, even acts of support and solidarity will necessarily be laced with historical power disparities.

Practical Implications

The takeaway here is that agency is a human need. The question that remains—with which the author struggles but which he does not and cannot fully resolve—is how to enable agency when the fundamental global structure we are working within provides more agency to some actors than it does to others. The very term “enable agency” locates action with another actor, as is the case in discussions of international peacebuilding. The best “we” can do, then—as actors who might engage across borders with communities that are not our own—is to work while persistently asking ourselves these questions: Who is making fundamental judgments about value here, about what constitutes “peacebuilding” or “justice”? Who really has decision-making power? But also: who represents the “local community”? Who is not speaking or participating, and why? Peacebuilding will continue to be an imperfect enterprise, but ongoing critical reflection about the local/global power dynamics at play can at least temper the self-assurance that plagued the earlier mission civilisatrice.

Continued Reading

Zones of Peace By Landon Hancock and Christopher Mitchell. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2007.

Local Perspectives on International Peacebuilding By Madoka Futamura and Mark Notaras. United Nations University, 2007.

Local Peacebuilding Successes By the International Peace Institute, 2015.

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace By John Paul Lederach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Local in Practice: Professional Distinctions in Angolan Development Work By Rebecca Warne Peters. American Anthropologist, vol. 118, no. 3, 2016: 

Keywords: liberal peacebuilding, local agency, zones of peace

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 5, of the Peace Science Digest.